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Politics with a side of caviar: Obama welcomes Hollande at state dinner

By Halimah Abdullah and Dana Ford, CNN
updated 8:46 AM EST, Wed February 12, 2014
U.S. President Barack Obama escorts French President Francois Hollande for a review of the honor guard during a ceremony at the White House on Tuesday, February 11. Hollande's three-day state visit is designed to underscore historic ties and a burgeoning security relationship between America and its oldest ally. U.S. President Barack Obama escorts French President Francois Hollande for a review of the honor guard during a ceremony at the White House on Tuesday, February 11. Hollande's three-day state visit is designed to underscore historic ties and a burgeoning security relationship between America and its oldest ally.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Guests dine on beef, a chocolate dessert sourced from Obama's native Hawaii
  • The first lady wears a black and blue dress by Carolina Herrera
  • The French President arrives at the dinner, as expected, alone
  • The dinner marks the first state dinner of Obama's second term

(CNN) -- If you have to ask, you're probably not on the list.

U.S. President Barack Obama hosted his French counterpart, Francois Hollande, at a state dinner Tuesday night -- the first of his second term.

The event is a highly coveted social soiree. The presidents were joined by Michelle Obama and the crème de la crème of Washington and Hollywood.

The invite list is culled from recommendations from the President and first lady, top government officials, the Pentagon, members of Congress, the Supreme Court and the State Department.

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Movie stars and community and business leaders are also often asked to attend.

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Among this year's invited guests were: J.J. Abrams, Bradley Cooper, Stephen Colbert, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jeff Zucker, president of CNN Worldwide, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan and Secretary of State John Kerry.

Much like an awards show, guests streamed past a sea of cameras. Some stopped and talked to reporters.

The first lady wore a billowing black and blue dress designed by Carolina Herrera, and greeted Hollande along with her husband on the steps outside.

When the three came down a staircase inside, she walked behind the two men, because Hollande went to the dinner stag.

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The main event was held in a tent on the South Lawn of the White House.

"We Americans have grown to love all things French -- the films, the food, the wine -- especially the wine. But most of all we love our French friends because we've stood together for our freedom for more than 200 years," President Obama said at dinner.

Attendees munched on four courses of American-grown haute cuisine: osetra caviar and quail eggs, a winter salad "served in a wonderful glass bowl to make it look like a terrarium," Colorado-raised beef and a chocolate dessert sourced from Obama's native Hawaii.

Before the dinner, the White House released the names and vintages of the wines poured at each course -- a change from the last few state dinners, which listed only "American" bottles lest the price shock taxpayers. Reds from California and Washington State and a sparking wine from Virginia were the selections. None retail for more than $50 a bottle.

It all sounds very fancy -- and it is -- but state dinners aren't just about pomp and pageantry, according to the White House. Real work gets done.

"Behind the festive exterior of the social scene, the important business of government goes on -- information is gathered -- opinions exchanged -- powerful connections made and appearances upheld. For these reasons White House invitations are the most important and the most sought after in the nation's social whirl," the White House website says.

Obama and Hollande are in the midst of a diplomatic bromance as they face international challenges that include the Syrian civil war, Iran's nuclear ambitions and economic malaise in Europe.

A socialist elected in 2012, Hollande arrived alone for the dinner after revelations in France of an affair with an actress and the subsequent end of his longtime relationship with Valerie Trierweiler, who was considered the equivalent of the French first lady even though the two weren't married.

It's not the first time a French president has come to Washington alone. Hollande's predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, attended a formal dinner at the White House shortly after announcing his split from his previous wife.

A little less pomp: Obama hosts fewer state dinners

CNN's Kevin Liptak contributed to this report.

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